A Spirit of Folly

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

As we discussed last year, this week’s ParshahNaso – includes the famous ritual of the Sotah.

As a quick refresher, the Sotah is a married woman whose husband has, for some reason, grown insecure about her relationship with another man. Jealous and possessive, her husband summons two witnesses, and before them, he warns her not to seclude herself with the particular man in question.

Alas, notwithstanding his warning, the husband is subsequently informed by another two witnesses that his wife was indeed observed secluding herself with the other man – and for long enough to have been intimate with him. He confronts her; she denies that anything happened. But he doesn’t believe her. And he needs to know. Did she, or didn’t she?

So he resolves to take her to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, to undergo the Sotah ritual.

When she gets there, she goes through a ordeal calculated to wear her down, and — if she is guilty — to confess to adultery. Her dress is torn, her hair is loosened and uncovered, and she brings a meal-offering of barley. She is moved from place to place, and the public is invited to witness her debasement. It is not quite Cersei’s walk of shame in Game of Thrones, but it offers its own degree of humiliation.

The climax of the ritual will be when G-d’s ineffable name is written on a piece of parchment, and is then scraped off into a mixture of water and earth — which the Sotah must then drink. Before G-d’s name is erased, however, she is again encouraged to confess if she is guilty. After all, if she confessed, nothing would happen to her other than a mandatory divorce (and let’s be honest — does she have much of a future with this husband?) without the payment of her Ketubah. On the other hand, if she does not confess, but is guilty nonetheless, the water ends her life in a fairly gruesome manner. If she is innocent, however, she is blessed with increased fertility, and easy labor and childbirth.

The Sotah ritual was eventually discontinued for various reasons, as we discussed here; however, it has contributed to two enduring features of Jewish life — one philosophical, and one halachic.

On the philosophical side, the Torah introduces the segment on the Sotah as follows: “Should any man’s wife go astray…” The Talmud notes that the Hebrew word used to mean “go astray” is “Tisteh” (תִשְׂטֶ֣ה), which shares the same root as “Shoteh” (שׁוֹטֶה) and “Shtut” (שְׁטוּת), meaning “fool” and “folly”, respectively. From here, the Talmud draws a sweeping inference regarding the motivation for all sins:

“A person does not commit a sin unless a spirit of folly (שְׁטוּת) enters him.”[1]

The premise of this philosophy is that sinning does not come naturally to us, for at our core, we have a healthy respect for and understanding of our role in this world, vis a vis our Creator. We know what our responsibilities are. We know that G-d gave us a set of instructions, and tied them to the world’s light. Thus, we know that keeping the Mitzvot bring eternal life and inner peace, and that transgressing them is not in our best interests.

Thus, when we do sin, it is because we have temporarily forgotten one of the above truths. A “spirit of folly” tells us that there is no G-d. Or that there’s a G-d, but that He didn’t give us His Mitzvot. Or that he gave us the Mitzvot, but He doesn’t care if we keep them. Or that He cares if we keep them, but there are no consequences if we don’t. Or that there are consequences to transgressing them, but that the Mitzvot don’t say what they seem to say; whatever it is that we want to do, somehow the Mitzvot conveniently proscribe something different.

It’s temporary insanity. We all get it; it is normal and frequent — but it is a blanket, a veil, a cloud, that temporarily obscures an important truth in a way that makes sinning somehow appear to be a sensible course of conduct.

How does one fight a sprit of folly? If by its very nature it is sub-rational, then how can we use rational thought to defeat it? Or, in other words, how can we fight a mirage? How can we fight something that disguises irrational thought as something rational?

In Kabbalah it explains that we can’t — at least not directly, and not in the moment. In order to defeat sub-rational folly, we need to become accustomed to employing super-rational folly. For if our enemy employs folly to trip us, we need to go on the offensive with a positive, holy folly.

Too often, when it comes to good things, we are more restrained and reserved, more reticent. We don’t want to get too crazy. We are much more rational and measured when we decide how much of ourselves to invest in a holy endeavor, in a Mitzvah. We can easily blow large sums of money “in the moment” on a wild night, but we rarely demonstrate quite that kind of reckless abandon when it comes to charity. That’s not wrong, or bad — it’s just…rational.

Yet we live in a world in which our rational thought is up for grabs, and more often than not, it is commandeered by our baser, darker instincts. The Sotah teaches us that to the way to combat this is by exercising our super-rational muscle, and by being irrationally good.

The second enduring lesson from the Sotah is a halachic one.

Among the things done to a Sotah to shame and expose her, is uncovering her hair. From here, the Talmud infers (as we discussed here) that it was a universally-accepted practice for married Jewish women to cover their hair — which is why the Torah assumes that the Sotah’s hair was, of course, covered, and commands that in this specific context it be uncovered.[2]

To this day, married Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair. Some cover it with hats; others with kerchiefs or snoods. It has become fairly common for women to wear wigs, or shaitels, and — commensurate with the ever-increasing desire to be sexy and fashionable — shaitels have steadily increased in quality (and price). Today, there are wigs for virtually every socioeconomic stratum, ranging from Toyota-level shaitels to Rolls Royce-level shaitels. In fact, just this week, Jewish media took note of a new shaitel-review website, characterized as “Yelp For Shaitels,” reviewing, comparing and contrasting different qualities and brands of shaitels. There is an entire burgeoning industry that has arisen as the result of married women’s need to cover their hair.

And because it’s not easy stuffing one’s natural hair into a the netting of a wig, many women crop their hair short (again, calling to mind Cersei’s walk of shame), and some shave off their natural hair entirely. Thus, many women ultimately find themselves to be at their most attractive when wearing a shaitel. Moreover, wearing a shaitel is different than a hat or a kerchief: you can’t take it off in a public setting (which is one of the reasons that it is halachically preferred). While a woman might easily remove a hat or a kerchief without making a scene, it is far more difficult to remove her entire head of hair.

I personally have always been impressed by shaitel-wearers. I can only imagine how difficult it is for a single girl to commit to a lifetime of covering her glorious mane; to never again feeling the breeze ruffling through her hair as she walks down the street; having to be so careful about getting her shaitel cut, knowing that the hair will never grow back, and that it may cost more than a thousand dollars to replace. And they do it — not because covering one’s hair is one of the Ten Commandments, or even one of the 613 biblical commandments, for it is not. Rather, they do it because they have learned from the Sotah that it is a Jewish practice for married women to cover their hair — and that is enough for them.

Works Cited

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 3a. See also Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 5.
[2] See Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 72a; Sifri 11a.